Sometimes unorthodox approaches to medical research and treatment have the potential to yield game-changing results.
Starting next month, a two-year project through the University of Texas will award three prizes ranging from $250,000 to $2 million to individual researchers who comb through 100 years of scientific papers on Alzheimer’s disease to find a cluster of factors or single cause for the memory-stealing illness, which has eluded scientists for more than a century.
The Oskar Fischer Project, named for a Czech scientist who identified the signature plaques, tangles, and proteins in the brains of 12 symptomatic patients in 1907 — the same year Alois Alzheimer published on a patient with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease — is the brainchild of engineer James Truchard, retired CEO of National Instruments, who is funding the prizes.
“The idea is to break us out of the mold we’ve been in, and find an explanation for Alzheimer’s disease. A lot of research gets into very fine points,” Truchard said. “Sometimes you need to step back and look at the big picture.”
The 75-year-old physicist, engineer and philanthropist is encouraging participants to take a systems approach to drawing conclusions from the already-prodigious body of research, rather than add a new focused study.
The project runs counter to current clearly-defined strategies for fathoming the disease, but may produce critical new information, or at least a valuable overview that can direct future studies, experts say. The approach is not new to science, Truchard said; Einstein and Darwin made world-changing discoveries by reviewing the body of information on a subject and evincing theories based upon it. In this case, researchers will be tasked with reading and distilling over 130,000 published research papers on Alzheimer’s disease to untangle repeating threads that pinpoint a cause or causes – and potentially point to treatments that arrest or cure the disease rather than manage its symptoms.
“We need to look at Alzheimer’s as a big complex puzzle with a missing piece. We need a brilliant individual who can consider what each piece has to offer, and develop an explanation that fits because it pulls all the pieces together,” Truchard said.
The project is designed and implemented in partnership with the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Brain Health Consortium, whose scientists research brain mechanisms and therapies related to neurodegenerative disease, brain circuits, electrical signaling, traumatic brain injury, medicinal chemistry and drug design, neuroinflammation, regenerative medicine including stem cell therapies and psychology.
Among many factors in Alzheimer’s disease, project researchers will be looking at the role of gut and brain bacteria, over 400 different genes tied to Alzheimer’s risk, the power of supplements known to reduce brain inflammation, and the use of infra-red light to stimulate energy production on a cellular level, which has been shown to promote healing elsewhere in the body.
“I truly believe Alzheimer’s disease is multifaceted; it’s about lifestyle, heredity and brain regression. It’s important to look at all possible solutions. This contest will bring together the world’s best minds to consider the entire story,” Truchard said. The call for proposals will open in February 2019 and continue through the two-year term of the project.
According to a 2018 report by Alzheimer’s Disease International, an estimated 50 million worldwide are living with dementia, including Alzheimer’s, at a cost of $1 trillion to the global economy – a population that’s expected to triple in the next 30 years.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.7 million Americans age 65 and older currently have the disease, and that number is predicted to reach 14 million by 2050 unless there are significant breakthroughs in treatment.
At present, global research papers on cancer outnumber published work on neurodegenerative disorders by 12 to one. In the past 14 years no new drugs have been approved for Alzheimer’s disease.
Recent and ongoing research and longitudinal studies have focused on the power of lifestyle modifications to delay onset or reduce risk. And a handful of widely-used pharmaceuticals have successfully reduced symptoms and prolonged quality of life for patients.
“There are a lot of disease-modifying therapies,” but as yet, no cure in sight, said Kelsey Gosselin, manager of medical and scientific research engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association Massachusetts/New Hampshire chapter. Much investigation focuses on the significance of amyloid plaques found in the brains of people with and without the disease. “The question is, are they going to develop symptoms? Is there something about the brain that enables these people to be resilient?” Gosselin said.
Together 32 Alzheimer’s research centers funded by the National Institute on Aging produce roughly 500 studies a year – “high-impact scientific research. It’s not because of lack of information that we don’t have treatment that’s more effective,” said John Growdon, M.D., professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, and founder of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “This is a tough disease.”
Worldwide research has “given us a lot of information, a huge body of information by austere scientists. But often, it hasn’t provided the type of information that’s helped real people,” said George Perry, chief scientist at the UTSA Brain Health Consortium. “If we can delay (Alzheimer’s) onset by five years, we can reduce its prevalence” astronomically, he said. “You don’t have to go that far to make a big difference from a public health standpoint.”